In and of itself, the phrase "guilty pleasure" seems like a reasonable way to describe certain activities. For example, it is pleasurable to snort cocaine in public restrooms, and it always makes you feel guilty; as such, lavatory cocaine fits perfectly into this category. Drinking more than five glasses of gin before (or during) work generally qualifies as a guilty pleasure. So does having sex with people you barely know, having sex with people you actively hate, and/or having sex with people you barely know but whom your girlfriend used to live with during college (and will now consequently hate). These are all guilty pleasures in a technical sense. However, almost no one who uses the term "guilty pleasure" is referring to activities like these. People who use this term are usually talking about why they like Joan of Arcadia, or the music of Nelly, or Patrick Swayze's Road House. This troubles me for two reasons: Labeling things like Patrick Swayze movies a guilty pleasure implies that a) people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy, and b) if these same people were not somehow coerced into watching Road House every time it's on TBS, they'd probably be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Both of these assumptions are wrong.
I suspect that Entertainment Weekly semiaccidentally started all this way back in the twentieth century with its "Guilty Pleasures" issue. Initially, this was a charming idea. It allowed the magazine to cover things that would normally be nonsensical to write about, and it dovetailed nicely with the primary cultural obsession of all people born between 1968 and 1980 (i.e., profound nostalgia for the extremely recent past). EW still publishes this annual feature, although now it just picks crazy shit to confuse soccer moms in Omaha. (I question whether any contemporary person derives pleasure from—or feels guilty about—Mr. Rogers's puppet-saturated Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which EW inexplicably included in its 2004 installment.)
What's more troubling is the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1,001 Things You Hate to Love (Quirk Books). Ostensibly a reference guide for those who want to feel embarrassed about being engaged with life, The EGP is a compilation of everything that's been popular over the past fifty years, augmented by short essays about why we can't help but adore these terrible, terrible things. These are things like Michael Jackson's Thriller, an album that 1) was produced by Quincy Jones, 2) features guitar playing by Eddie Van Halen, 3) includes at least three singles that are undeniably awesome, and 4) has the single-best bass line from the entire 1980s (the opening of "Billie Jean"). It is a guilty pleasure, presumably, because forty-five million people liked it, and because Jackson is quite possibly a pedophile, and because two dancers had a really unfair knife fight* in the "Beat It" video. This is akin to considering Thomas Jefferson a guilty pleasure because he briefly owned two pet bears. I mean, he still wrote the fucking Declaration of Independence, you know?
*Here's why the knife fight was rigged: If you recall, the two gang members in the video had their wrists tied together before they started trying to slice each other up. However, the white guy with the striped shirt had his right wrist tied, and the black guy in the white suit had his left wrist tied. So—unless the white guy was a southpaw—this situation was patently unfair.
--Chuck Klosterman is the author of many fine books, including Chuck Klosterman IV which is available at your local bookstore or online, at BarnesAndNoble.com.